Defining Science Communication (Pt. 2): An Unexpected International Conversation

shutterstock_249702325Social media is strange. Sometimes the conversation you think is going to happen never takes place. Other times the conversation changes – or happens where you least expect it to.

Late last month I posted this piece: How Do You Define Science Communication? (#DefineScicomm). I closed it with a suggestion that we kick-off a broader discussion about the topic. It was shared broadly via social media, but it didn’t exactly light-up Twitter. And it only generated one comment.

I soon learned that the conversation was going on – but in an unexpected place. It was happening on Linkedin. I found out when my email became filled with notifications. I then wondered how many people were missing the exchange because they weren’t aware of (or didn’t have access to) the specific discussion thread.

The people engaging in the discussion were from all over the world, and they were making some interesting points. You can read parts of the discussion below (extracted on 8/8). Since the specific LinkedIn group is private, I’ve removed the names of the individuals. I left the country affiliation in place. Most of the participants appeared to be in roles directly and/or indirectly connected to research.

I share some final thoughts at the end. Enjoy!


Norway

“My working definition: Science Communication is about making science and research-based knowledge comprehensible, relevant and even interesting for specific target audiences.”

Czech Republic

“My definition of science communication is simple, and I’ve followed it for many years: To help ordinary people understand what surrounds them. A century ago, a common man could understand the technical machines and devices, which are normally met, and after a learning curve and it is able to produce. I think the answer to the question “why and how it works” is the biggest challenge us who are engaged in science communication.”

United Kingdom (1)

“Communication is supposed to be a two-way thing, therefore science communication should be about engaging in conversation with the public. Good science communication does this, and this is always my starting point for my projects.”

United Kingdom (2)

“Many science communicators are better trained in science rather than communication, which presents a large problem – professionals in the field are often not adhering to best practice in communications. The huge lack of digital skills is just one example and serves to bias these studies somewhat. More time should be spent closing skill gaps than doing mostly pointless studies like this.” (Editor’s Note: The study referred to in the comment is What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK, which was highlighted in my original blog post.)

Italy

“Einstein said, I believe that ” if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The main problem of communicating or disseminating results of scientific research lies in here.

Maybe mathematicians need to know why 1=1 (if it really does some would add surely), but 99% of us simply need to know that it does. But we NEED TO KNOW. The supposition that you cannot explain everything to everyone is a pretentious claim. Trying is a minimum obligation of all scientists, I trust.”

Switzerland (1)

“There are many different forms of science communication:

  • Communication of Scientific Research to the Public (within this, adults vs kids)
  • Communication of the Scientific Method/Critical Thinking to the Public (within this, adults vs kids)
  • Communication of Scientific Research to Other Scientists
  • Promotion of specific scientific findings
  • Promotion of specific scientists, companies, or universities
  • Promotion of science as a whole
  • Promotion of science as a career

Think I’m missing any here?”

United Kingdom (3)

“Why would science communication be different from communication about anything else, such as projects, ideas, initiatives or activities in any scientific or non-scientific field? (Switzerland 1’s) list highlights that it’s about working out who your audiences are and targeting them appropriately in order to promote something of value that you have or know about so that things can be taken further. Promotion professionals (i.e. the ad industry) know this well. Artists that know this well become famous, others don’t despite their talent. Politicians, charities, environmentalists, business people, doctors, manufacturers, grocers and (etc etc…the rest of the world) succeed or fail on how well they communicate with their target audiences. In short, I don’t think that science communication needs to be defined, but that communication in general needs to be considered a fundamental element of scientific work. Good science that is not communicated well is futile science. Good communication doesn’t necessarily mean mass media promotional campaigns; it can be communicating to just one other person if that is the right target audience for your work.”

United Kingdom (1)

“Spot on (The United Kingdom 3) I add that where most mass science communication seems to miss the point for me is that, in most cases, scientists do not seem to really engage their audience in a dialogue and do not seem to be really interested in listening to their audience.”

United Kingdom (2)

(United Kingdom 3) wins the thread. There is no difference. Professional communicators (creative, digital, advertising, PR industries etc) can communicate complex concepts well, whether it be insurance, science or economics. Good communication is good communication.

I think the misunderstanding comes from people who move from scientific and academic areas into communications. This works about as well as me “moving into” protein research.

Having to define what it just shows a blatant lack of understanding over how the communications field works, yet people don’t seem to find it surprising when they find out PR companies aren’t running around conferences and submitting “research” trying to define what PR is.”

Portugal

“My definition of science communication is very basic: To know how and be able to tell a story about scientific subjects, so that all (and here I say it ALL!) are able to understand it, give their opinion and eventually to help others to realize and participate in what happens and surrounds them. And yes, why would science communication be different from communication about any other subject?”

Switzerland (1)

“Provocative question: Would you agree that information flows ‘downhill,’ such that those with less information gain information from those with more? If we can agree there, then I’m not understanding some of these points about dialogue and two-way information flow. Scientists have a deep understanding of their field of study. What do they stand to learn from the public, particularly about that field? What it is that the public doesn’t understand? What the public is interested in? Shouldn’t that information go to policy makers and research funders rather that the scientists themselves?”

Canada

“Good questions (Switzerland 1). I don’t think information should always flow from those with more information to those with less. There is a lot that scientists can learn from the public and engagement is especially important when scientists are working within a community. I can think of a lot of examples ranging from geographers studying cattle grazing in riparian areas to veterinary scientists looking at the spread of parasites in caribou populations in the Arctic. Local and traditional knowledge can be an important part of research design and results. It’s also important for scientists to engage with the public when the technology or science involves risk or there is a perception of risk (eg. nuclear technology, GMOs, stem cell research, carbon capture, and storage). Learning first-hand the concerns of the public may allow researchers to address those concerns in research designs and also to anticipate issues when dealing with policy makers, regulators, and funders.”

United Kingdom (3)

“(Switzerland 1’s) analogy about information flowing downhill is a useful one. If I stand at the top of a hill with a large supply of water and simply turn on the tap, the water will start flowing downhill. If I am lucky, some of it will flow to people who are thirsty (my target audience), but a lot of it will flow to where there is already plenty of water or where there are no people at all, and a lot of thirsty people will get no water. However, if I first find out where the thirsty people are and check that the rights channels are available to get the water to them efficiently, everything will work much better: turning on the tap will be much more effective. Likewise with information. Effectiveness is increased if targets and channels are identified well (information flowing uphill) rather than relying on luck and hoping for the best.”

Italy (2)

A valid experience has been, once chosen the argument, to have the involved scientist writing an article, this is automatically complete correct and adjourned. Though with a high probability too much is given for known and the readability is poor it becomes a non-attractive text. Here one can promote the involvement of science communication specialists, which will “translate” the article to a more accessible but still very informative and non-banal text.”

United Kingdom (3)

“In addition, following up on what (The United Kingdom 2) and (Italy 1) have written, the owner of the tap at the top of the hill does not also have to be a good plumber or landscape designer. Scientists should do the science (what they are best at) and communicators should do the communicating (what they are best at). The relationship between the two is best established at the outset as an inherent part of the work, rather than tacking communication on as an afterthought once the science is done.”


Final Thoughts:

When I read through the comments I was happy to see references to identifying target audiences and selecting appropriate communication channels. I also appreciated the acknowledgment of the value provided by science communication professionals. In my current role at Georgia Tech, I have emphasized the value of audience research. We’ve done one internal and two external audience studies. They have provided a solid foundation upon which we’ve built a focused strategic marketing and communication plan for research. Had we not solicited audience/stakeholder feedback, we’d be engaging in guesswork. The data collected has pointed us in the right direction, and identified areas in which there are opportunities for enhanced communication. Here’s the take-home: You can’t simply roll out a bunch of new tactics if they aren’t tied to an overarching strategy. The only way to develop one that works is to treat communication as a science…and do your research.


This discussion took place in the Horizon 2020, Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Group on LinkedIn. You can visit the page to request group membership. There are currently 99,918 members.

If you’re already a group member, you can contribute to the discussion thread here.

(Minor edits were made to discussion thread comments for readability.)

27 thoughts on “Defining Science Communication (Pt. 2): An Unexpected International Conversation

  1. i think I know who UK (2) is, and I believe the sentiment may be too generalized. There are some trained as scientists who are excellent communicators to some target audiences but not to others.

    Like

  2. I mostly agree with United Kingdom 3 on this one. If there is a specific audience that scientist is trying to reach, then they would benefit from calling in a communications specialist. However it does bring up questions of how the community determines who benefits for the information. Science communication should be viewed as different from advertising, in my opinion, because even though you can use the same techniques to convey your message, it will be much more difficult to anticipate which audiences the information will resonate with.

    Like

    • Hi Melissa,

      Scicomm is a lot different than advertising, but it should take advantage of good marketing strategy – which is different. Marketing is about truly understanding audiences, knowing what makes them tick. Recognizing what interests them, what language resonates with them, and what things can set them off. Once you have that understanding you can plan a communication strategy that will have a much greater chance of success…and will reach and impact the precise audiences you are targeting.

      -Kirk

      Like

  3. This article reinforces the idea presented in the first article – that science communication is a multifaceted concept. However, I found that this article discovered that at the root of science communication is the overlap of good science and good communication. I really enjoyed hearing the differing viewpoints of science communication professionals from across the world, but I personally enjoyed the analogy presented by United Kingdom (3). It demonstrates that the scientist is the one with the information, but good communication skills are necessary in order to give the public access to this information and the ability to do something useful and worthwhile with the information.

    Like

    • Good observation Chandler. There’s another important element to consider too. The impact of the research itself. Traditionally, researchers present their findings in published journal articles and/or present at scientific conferences. If the communication stops there, the impact of the actual work done will be limited. Consider that there are more than 1.8M journal articles published each year. How does a researcher get his/hers to stand out and gain recognition within the scientific community. The answer – communication.

      Your point about giving public access to information is important too. We can’t let the impact of research begin and end within the scientific community. If it is work that will impact health, safety, our society or economy, we need to be sure it’s shared broadly in a way people can truly understand.

      Like

  4. I think that science communication is a crucial form of communication because it allows a society to be less fearful and panicked in a time of crisis. It will also decreases confusions and disagreements between ordinary citizens in a society who aren’t well-versed in the subject matters. However, to do this there needs to be a greater emphasis on how science is communicated to the public, so that it resonates with the ordinary non-citizen. I think this is something that can be taught in schools while students are still learning and understanding the science(s) themselves.

    Like

    • Hi Sarah,

      You make some good points.

      The foundation of effective crisis communication is the ability to provide accurate and timely information to people quickly and easily. This could be science-related, or it could be something as simple as a ruptured gas line.

      On the decreasing disagreements topic – I’m not sure that more information communicated clearly diminishes them at all. There is a growing body of research that explores the personal experiences, cultural factors, and societal influences that affect a person’s belief in science. You may want to check out the Cultural Cognition blog for more details – it’s really great: http://www.culturalcognition.net

      Finally, I can’t agree more about teaching young people to become savvy consumers of scientific information. We should formally teach people to be skeptical, to ask lots of questions, and to recognize when something sounds too good to be true.

      Kirk

      Like

  5. Just as many of the previous comments stated, I agree that science communication doesn’t necessarily have to be defined. The focus instead should be directed towards the effectiveness of having the science understood by the target audience. This allows the needed room to change the definition of science communication as needed so that the best possible form of communication can be delivered.

    Like

  6. It was neat how you found out that your conversation was starting to populate on LunkedIn when you didn’t expect that. I found it interesting that there were similarities between people’s perception of science communication because there are language barriers, different life styles, and interpretations from one country to another. But, to my understanding, the general understanding of science that I got from looking over peoples comments from other countries was that there are two parts; the science of understanding, researching, and knowledge, which is translated for interpretation, results, and conclusions that are made known for the general public.

    Like

    • Thank you Olivia. It was a neat conversation.

      Science is about the search for knowledge, but what I find interesting is your use of the term ‘General Public.’ There really is no such thing as a ‘general public.’ There are many publics – and each receives information (and reacts to it) differently. See my comment above about cultural factors, etc.

      This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a colleague who was asking why we (at Georgia Tech) were presenting only 12 core research areas on our website when we have extremely smart people doing work in thousands of different areas. My response was that we can’t be all things to all people. Marketing ourselves as such would be pointless and wouldn’t help us differentiate our university from others. We still write about, and promote, neat research in all areas – but we’ve tailored our communication planning around the 12 areas because they have distinct markets we can focus on – publics we can get to know well. This will help us truly have an impact in some major areas we believe are important for the future.

      Like

  7. I think its really interesting how everyone has a different idea of what science communication is. I also find it kind of cool how everyones answers were different, but they all had parts that intertwined and were similar. I also found it interesting that even with a different languages everyone still had somewhat of a similar idea of what science communication is. I personally agree with what the UK 3 said. I think that communication should not be differentiated by subject and that it’s a universal term whether it’s talking about school projects, science, or non science subjects.

    Like

    • Hi Conor,

      I read UK 3’s comments a bit differently. I believe he/she is saying that we should get to know an audience and target that audience – which is much different than simply blasting messages out to the world with no focus or strategy. As an example, the way we communicate about biology to an interested audience will be much different than the way we communicate with an audience interested in manufacturing. While all areas have overlap, and many of the communication techniques are similar – the messaging is what needs to be different in order to have an impact with an audience.

      Like

  8. I agree with the previous comments about science communication not needing a definition. Science communication could change based on your goals and target audience so trying to create one definition for that seems nearly impossible. I think United Kingdom 2 said it best when they said “Good communication is good communication.” The focus should be more on making science communication good communication, no matter what the goal is.

    Like

    • Very true – but as I’ve mentioned a few times above – it’s very important to tailor your messages to the audience you’re trying to reach. I strongly encourage the use of audience/market research prior to launching any sort of communication program. The data gathered helps communicators get to know their audiences, making it easier to craft messages that will resonate.

      Like

  9. I enjoyed the statement that United Kingdom (3) made. A key factor of science communication is knowing who your audience is and being able to connect with them and allow them to fully understand what you are trying to communicate. Sometimes communication experts are not put on the same level as science experts, but as United Kingdom (3) stated “communication needs to be considered a fundamental element.”

    Like

    • Hi Georgia,

      Yes! You’re speaking my language! I also like your use of the term ‘Communication Experts.’ I think we need to do everything we can to help researchers understand that communication is a science (and an art). Audience research has always been my way of convincing skeptical researchers of the value of communication. When they see that there was honest inquiry taking place to determine a course of action (developing a comm plan) it suddenly becomes more legitimate in their eyes. …as it should. There’s nothing better than working with researchers who see the value in communication.

      Like

  10. I found this article extremely enlightening, and a great addition to the first article in this series, “How Do You Define Science Communication.” I really enjoyed seeing people’s different perceptions of science communication based on their location, profession and experience in the science world. I think that United Kingdom (1) made an especially good point saying, “..in most cases, scientists do not seem to really engage their audience in a dialogue and do not seem to be really interested in listening to their audience.” I agree with this, and to me, one of the most important aspects of science communication is having that open dialogue, and making sure that important science and technology concepts are comprehendible to the general public.

    Like

    • Hi Hannah –

      You’ve highlighted something very interesting. Communication (alone) IS NOT engagement. Getting information shared is one thing, but enabling a dialogue about research is quite another. I consider it the holy grail of science communication – as long as the researcher is willing and able to do it well. This comes with practice, and support from expert communicators. It’s more than media relations, it’s the willingness to break out of a comfort zone and talk to people outside of your peer group. It’s working with school kids, speaking at science night at the local pub, engaging on social media, blogging, etc. It’s all of the things that facilitate two-way communication – a back and forth – between the audience and the researcher. That is the place where real communication happens. It’s also where personal and institutional reputation-building happens too.

      Like

  11. I found that the most accurate definition of science communication was also the most broad definition. The Czech Republic definition was “to help ordinary people understand what surrounds them.” Science communication can be related to many things therefore a broad definition is necessary. In addition to this definition I would also include, to help ordinary people understand what surrounds them through intrapersonal communication, interpersonal communication, public communication, and mass communication.

    Like

    • Hi Zach –

      Yes, helping ‘ordinary people’ understand what surrounds them is one important role played by science communicators. There are many others though. Science communication can help good research influence public policy. It can also help build the reputation of a researcher, a research group, a research institution – and so on. Additionally, it can be used as a rainmaker – encouraging government and industry to connect with researchers by way of sponsored research programs. The list goes on…but the point is that enhancing scientific literacy of ‘the masses’ is only one of many potential goals.

      Like

  12. Thank you for all of the comments. I have to ask though – was this post discussed in a class at UVM? Is that why there’s the sudden attention – and wave of comments? Just curious. I love that you’re contributing to the conversation. Keep the comments coming!!!

    Like

  13. I enjoyed reading this! It is exciting to see the buzz around the world surrounding this subject. I enjoyed Italy’s response and how they quoted if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I am always seeking a deeper understanding of topics and theories. I am looking forward to diving into this subject more.

    Like

    • I hope you do. This is a fascinating topic. …I blog about it, after all.

      The quote Italy cited applies to all topics – not just science. It really is a commentary on communication in general. If you’re not making things clear, your success will be limited. The key is remembering that what makes something understandable to one audience doesn’t mean it will work work with all other audience. You’ve got to do your research and know who you’re talking to. And beyond that, you need to truly understand the cultural and societal elements that influence their perception of science (or whatever it is you’re communicating.)

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s